The Prussian Renaissance and Geometrical Foundations: Euclid The Fall Guy!

As Prussian Minister of Education, Humboldt oversaw the system of Technische Hochschulen and Gymnasien. Humboldt's plans for reforming the Prussian school system were not published until long after his death, together with his fragment of a treatise on the 'Theory of Human Education', which had been written in about 1793. Here Humboldt states that 'the ultimate task of our existence is to give the fullest possible content to the concept of humanity in our own person […] through the impact of actions in our own lives'. This task 'can only be implemented through the links established between ourselves as individuals and the world around us' (GS, I, p. 283).

Humboldt's concept of education does not lend itself solely to individualistic interpretation. It is true that he always recognized the importance of the organization of individual life and the 'development of a wealth of individual forms' (GS, III, p. 358), but he stressed the fact that 'self-education can only be continued […] in the wider context of development of the world' (GS, VII, p. 33). In other words, the individual is not only entitled, but also obliged, to play his part in shaping the world around him.

Humboldt's educational ideal was entirely coloured by social considerations. He never believed that the 'human race could culminate in the attainment of a general perfection conceived in abstract terms'. In 1789, he wrote in his diary that 'the education of the individual requires his incorporation into society and involves his links with society at large' (GS, XIV, p. 155). In his essay on the 'Theory of Human Education', he answered the question as to the 'demands which must be made of a nation, of an age and of the human race'. 'Education, truth and virtue' must be disseminated to such an extent that the 'concept of mankind' takes on a great and dignified form in each individual (GS, I, p. 284). However, this shall be achieved personally by each individual, who must 'absorb the great mass of material offered to him by the world around him and by his inner existence, using all the possibilities of his receptiveness; he must then reshape that material with all the energies of his own activity and appropriate it to himself so as to create an interaction between his own personality and nature in a most general, active and harmonious form' (GS, II, p. 117). In the original text from which this section has been lifted without attribution, "GS" refers to Humboldt, Wilhelm von. 1903–36. Gesammelte Schriften: Ausgabe Der Preussischen Akademie Der Wissenschaften. Bd. I—XVII, Berlin. (Cited as GS in the text, the Roman numeral indicates the volume and the Arabic figure the page; the original German spelling has been modernized.) "Gesammelte Schriften" means "Collected Writings".


Works by Humboldt [edit]
Socrates and Plato on the Divine (orig. Sokrates und Platon über die Gottheit). 1787–1790
Humboldt. On the Limits of State Action, first seen in 1792. Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staates zu bestimmen, page ii. Published by E. Trewendt, 1851 (German)
Über den Geschlechtsunterschied. 1794
Über männliche und weibliche Form. 1795
Outline of a Comparative Anthropology (orig. Plan einer vergleichenden Anthropologie). 1797.
The Eighteenth Century (orig. Das achtzehnte Jahrhundert). 1797.
Ästhetische Versuche I. – Über Goethe's Hermann und Dorothea. 1799.
Latium und Hellas (1806)
Geschichte des Verfalls und Untergangs der griechischen Freistaaten. 1807–1808.
Pindars "Olympische Oden". Translation from Greek, 1816.
Aischylos' "Agamemnon". Translation from Greek, 1816.
Über das vergleichende Sprachstudium in Beziehung auf die verschiedenen Epochen der Sprachentwicklung. 1820.
Über die Aufgabe des Geschichtsschreibers. 1821.
Researches into the Early Inhabitants of Spain with the help of the Basque language (orig. Prüfung der Untersuchungen über die Urbewohner Hispaniens vermittelst der vaskischen Sprache). 1821.
Über die Entstehung der grammatischen Formen und ihren Einfluss auf die Ideenentwicklung. 1822.
Upon Writing and its Relation to Speech (orig. Über die Buchstabenschrift und ihren Zusammenhang mit dem Sprachbau). 1824.
Über die unter dem Namen Bhagavad-Gita bekannte Episode des Maha-Bhárata. 1826.
Über den Dualis. 1827.
On the languages of the South Seas (orig. Über die Sprache der Südseeinseln). 1828.
On Schiller and the Path of Spiritual Development (orig. Über Schiller und den Gang seiner Geistesentwicklung). 1830.
Rezension von Goethes Zweitem römischem Aufenthalt. 1830.
The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind (orig. Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaus und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts). 1836. New edition: On Language. On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and Its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species, Cambridge University Press, 2nd rev. edition 1999
Works by other authors [edit]
G. W. F. Hegel, 1827. On The Episode of the Mahabharata Known by the Name Bhagavad-Gita (Hegel's review of Wilhelm von Humboldt's lectures on the Bhagavad-Gita).
David Sorkin, "Wilhelm Von Humboldt: The Theory and Practice of Self-Formation (Bildung), 1791-1810" in: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1983), pp. 55–73.
Antoine Berman. L'épreuve de l'étranger. Culture et traduction dans l'Allemagne romantique: Herder, Goethe, Schlegel, Novalis, Humboldt, Schleiermacher, Hölderlin., Paris, Gallimard, Essais, 1984. ISBN 978-2-07-070076-9.
Tilman Borsche, Wilhelm von Humboldt, München, Beck, 1990. ISBN 3-406-33218-8.
Marina Lalatta Costerbosa, Ragione e tradizione: il pensiero giuridico ed etico-politico di Wilhelm von Humboldt, Milano, Giuffrè, 2000. ISBN, 88-14-08219-7.
Realino Marra, La ragione e il caso. Il processo costituente nel realismo storico di Wilhelm von Humboldt, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XXXII-2, 2002, pp. 453-64.
Elsina Stubb, Wilhelm Von Humboldt's Philosophy of Language, Its Sources and Influence, Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.
John Roberts, German Liberalism and Wilhelm Von Humboldt: A Reassessment, Mosaic Press, 2002
Joxe Azurmendi, Humboldt. Hizkuntza eta pentsamendua, Bilbo, UEU, 2007. ISBN 978-84-8438-099-3.
Franz Schultheis, Le cauchemar de Humboldt: les réformes de l’enseignement supérieur européen, Paris, Raisons d’agir éditions, 2008. ISBN 978-2-912107-40-4.
James W. Underhill, Humboldt, Worldview and Language, Edinburgh University Press, 2009 [1].
Jean-Marie Valentin, Alexander von Humboldt: 150e anniversaire de sa mort, Paris, Didier Érudition. 2011. ISBN 978-2-252-03756-0.
Michael N. Forster, German philosophy of language, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-19-960481-4.

European research universities date from the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088 or the University of Paris (c. 1160–70). In the 19th and 20th centuries, European universities concentrated upon science and research, their structures and philosophies having shaped the contemporary university. The original medieval universities arose from the Roman Catholic Church schools that became “the university." Their purposes included training professionals, scientific investigation, improving society, and teaching critical thinking and research. External influences, such as Renaissance humanism (c. mid-14th century), the Age of Enlightenment (18th century), the Protestant Reformation (1517), political revolution, and the discovery of the New World (1492) added human rights and international law to the university curricula.

By the 18th century, universities published academic journals; by the 19th century, the German and the French university models were established. The German university — the Humboldtian model — established by Wilhelm von Humboldt was based upon Friedrich Schleiermacher’s liberal ideas about the importance of freedom, seminars, and laboratories, which, like the French university model, involved strict discipline and control of every aspect of the university. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the universities concentrated upon science, but were not open to the general populace until after 1914. Moreover, until the 19th century’s end, religion exerted a significant, limiting influence upon academic curricula and research, by when the German university model had become the world standard. Elsewhere, the British also had established universities world-wide, thus making higher education available to the world’s populaces.

Modern universities [edit]

BME, The oldest University of Technology, founded in Hungary in 1782

Wilhelm von Humboldt

Moving into the 19th century, the objective of universities evolved from teaching the “regurgitation of knowledge” to “encourag[ing] productive thinking.”[19] Two new university models, the German and the post-Revolutionary French, arose and made an impact on established models such as the Russian and Britain – especially the newer foundations of University College London and King's College London. Such free thinking and experimentation had notably already begun in Britain's oldest universities beginning in the seventeenth century at Oxford with the fathers of British scientific methodology Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle, and at Cambridge where Isaac Newton was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics & Physics. The dawn of the Age of Enlightenment and decline of classical medieval Scholasticism across Europe, as in Russia, made fertile ground for the German organizational approach as a consequence. The German model, conceived by Wilhelm von Humboldt, was also known as the Humboldtian model. In 1810, Humboldt convinced the King of Prussia to build a university in Berlin based on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s liberal ideas; the goal was to demonstrate the process of the discovery of knowledge and to teach students to “take account of fundamental laws of science in all their thinking.” Thus, seminars and laboratories started to evolve. [20] Humboldt envisioned the university education as a student-centered activity of research:

Just as primary instruction makes the teacher possible, so he renders himself dispensable through schooling at the secondary level. The university teacher is thus no longer a teacher and the student is no longer a pupil. Instead the student conducts research on his own behalf and the professor supervises his research and supports him in it.[21]

The main Entrance to Old College at Aberystwyth University.

Freedom was an important concept in the German university model, and the system of professors was based on competition and freedom: although professors served as state functionaries, they had the freedom to choose between several states, and their identity and prestige arose from the specialization of scientific disciplines.[22]

The French University model lacked the freedom of the German model, consisting of severe discipline and control over the curriculum, awarding of degrees, conformity of views, and personal habits (for example, there was a ban on beards in 1852).[23] French university professors trained at the École Normale Supérieure, and much of their prestige depended on their schools’ reputations.[24] By 1866, though, the German model had begun to influence the strict French model.[25]

The German university model was also used in Russian universities, which hired lecturers trained in Germany and which dedicated themselves to science. At the same time, Russian universities were meant to train the bureaucracy in the same way as the French grandes écoles. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Russian universities underwent much variation in their degrees of strictness and control.[26]

British universities of this period adopted some approaches familiar to the German universities, but as they already enjoyed substantial freedoms and autonomy the changes there had begun with the Age of Enlightenment, the same influences that inspired Humboldt. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge emphasized the importance of research, arguably more authentically implementing Humboldt’s idea of a university than even German universities, which were subject to state authority.[27]

Overall, science became the focus of universities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Students could conduct research in seminars or laboratories and began to produce doctoral theses with more scientific content.[28] According to Humboldt, the mission of the University of Berlin was to pursue scientific knowledge.[29] The German university system fostered professional, bureaucratically regulated scientific research performed in well-equipped laboratories, instead of the kind of research done by private and individual scholars in Great Britain and France.[30] In fact, Rüegg asserts that the German system is responsible for the development of the modern research university because it focused on the idea of “freedom of scientific research, teaching and study.”[31]
Philosophic and external influences [edit]

By the 16th century, the humanist ideas of the Renaissance (14th–16th century) were slowly accepted; France had propagated them first to Germany, then to England, during the Protestant Reformation (1617).[12] In that intellectual humanist mode, university education began including preparing the student for a civilized life — of culture and civility — and concern for society’s public affairs.[13] To achieve that, the curriculum comprised the liberal arts Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic), and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music) meant to prepare students for further specialized education in either theology, the law, or medicine. [14] In 1492, the socio-political consequences of the discovery of the New World expanded European university curricula, as human rights and international law became contemporarily relevant matters.[15] The Spanish enslavement of the native (aboriginal) populaces they conquered in the “New World” of the Americas eventually raised ethico-moral questions in Europe about the human rights of the American aboriginals — questions of cultural tolerance evinced by Renaissance humanism, the Bible, and mediæval theories of natural law.[16] In analogy to the ancient world’s works, Rüegg relates the “New World” idea to the idea of “new knowledge”. In the mid-16th century, scholarly and scientific journals made it feasible to “spread innovations among the learned”; by the 18th century, universities published their own research journals.[17] In the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment also encouraged education’s transition, from the “preservation and transmission of accepted knowledge” to the “discovery and advancement of new knowledge”; the newer universities effected that change more quickly, and adapted Enlightenment ideas about the harmfulness of monarchic Absolutism more readily than did the older universities.[18]


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